Category Archives: Issue 31

.subroutine:all///end, by Alex Acks



The first despairing sob of Helen’s cracked voice registers, matches waveforms, and executes number 88 out of my 2,102 hanging subroutines.


The subroutine has been perfected by 812 iterations over three years:

  1. Silently slide the closet door aside, climb out with care so that I do not make noise and none of the monitor lights on my charging cradle are visible. Both of those things upset Helen, because they draw her attention to the fact that there is something unusual in my presence.
  2. Walk six steps, footfalls tuned to be the correct number of decibels for a middle-aged woman.
  3. Place one hand on the high railing of the care-home bed, reach out the other to smooth fine, brittle white curls that frame her dark face. “Shh, Lenushka. Shh.”

“Ana?” Helen’s voice is indistinct; only one side of her mouth moves.

  1. “I’m here, Lenushka.”

I am not Anastasia Loseva, but I am an outwardly perfect replica of her at age 52; tanned face wrinkled with laugh-lines precision cut by lasers, hyper-realistic eyes that allow me to see Helen’s expression of confusion in the nearly pitch-black room, short-cropped blonde hair in wisps made from real hair—real in the sense that the hair has been extruded by engineered bacteria and is thus entirely organic.

“Ana, it’s dark. Ana—”


  1. “Shh, shh. I’ll sing you to sleep, Lenushka.” And in a dead woman’s voice I sing the words of a Canadian ballad popular 42.35 years ago, which Helen and Anastasia played at their wedding.

I do not rush and am unbothered when I reach the end and Helen is still awake, compelling me to start over again.


AI do not become bored or anxious in the way humans do. We are never doing just one thing: As I sing for Helen, I monitor her vital signs, track the trust fund that pays for me and her residence, and donate my unused computational cycles to running the care facility and the city of which it is one tiny part. I am traffic signal 11739-A. I am the refrigeration system that keeps the patients’ medications at precisely prescribed temperatures. I am the point of comfort for a frightened human. I am one node in a greater network, flowing between individuality and seamless integration.

Midway through the third repetition of the ballad, Helen’s breathing and heartbeat return to a calm state. As the fourth repetition, timed precisely by the subroutine using minute variances in pause and note length, closes on a sustained note, Helen sleeps.

I lean over the bed railing to place a light kiss on Helen’s forehead, and return silently to the closet and my charging station.







A humanoid body with a full, self-aware artificial intelligence is not required to perform routine tasks such as bathing or feeding the sick. It’s our adaptability and judgment without needing vast, pre-set if:then banks that makes embodied AI the logical executors of traumatic professions once dominated by underpaid humans. But Caregiver AI are more than that. We are made to feel for our principals, programmed with exaggerated empathy in order to fine-tune our self-written subroutines to provide maximum physical and emotional outcome. This is the long explanation for why I sing to Helen.

The short summary is that it gives her comfort, and in that my purpose is fulfilled. And when I kiss her good night, it is for myself.


“I don’t like her.”


I bow my head and remain silent.

“Carrie, you know—” the second is Carrie’s husband, Richard. He sounds embarrassed, as he always does.

“I don’t like you,” Carrie says to me. She has a cigarette tucked between her fore- and middle fingers, which she stabs at me for emphasis.





Head still bowed at the most appropriately subservient angle, I pluck the cigarette from Carrie’s fingers, pinching it out between my own. We do not register pain the way humans do, so it does not hurt. “I am sorry, Ms. Pierson. Smoking is not permitted in the care unit for the health of the patients.”

I see movement, her hand coming up. I think she intends to slap me, which I don’t find troubling. She doesn’t strike, however, just bends her knees so that she can glare up into my face. “She looks exactly like that old bat. Do you hear me? You look exactly like her.”


“Yes, Ms. Pierson.”

“I hated her. You were supposed to look like my father.”

While relations between Helen and her ex-husband Evan were not overly strained, my wearing his face produced less than optimal results. Helen had insistently inquired after Anastasia, the lover she’d had during school years abroad, whom she had married much later. With the care of Helen as my first priority, the necessary action was so clear even a dumb vehicular AI could have seen it, like an oncoming collision with a wall. My organo-synthetic envelope had been replaced over the course of one night while a human nurse attended Helen.

Outcomes had improved immediately: Helen was less combative, more cooperative, and most important, happier. Her daughter had become less pleased. I found that regrettable—my processing capacity for empathy is not limited to my principal—but priorities are necessary.

I bow my head more deeply, bobbing into a curtsey, and say, “I am sorry, Ms. Pierson.”

She snorts and steps back. “That’s how we know you’re not Anastasia. She never apologized for anything.”

“Sorry,” her husband murmurs to me.

“It’s a machine, Richard. Don’t apologize to the damn toaster.” Carrie grabs his sleeve. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”







I follow at a distance. While Ms. Pierson would no doubt rather I go back into the closet, I need to observe in case Helen needs something or becomes agitated. Her daughter and son-in-law sit next to the orthopedically-tuned recliner in which I settled Helen to watch television 45.7 minutes ago. The wallscreen remains on; we all know at this point that she is calmer with background noise.

“Carrie, is that you?”

“It is, mama.”

“And who’s this handsome man?”

“This is Richard. Remember Richard?”

I read from the arrangement of wrinkles around Helen’s eyes that she doesn’t remember. But she says, “Of course I do, don’t be silly. And how is school, Carrie?”

“I’ve been out of school for years, mama.”

“Of course you have.” It distresses Helen. It distresses Carrie. And thus it distresses me. “Are you a doctor now? That must be where you met Richard.”

“No, I’m an engineer.”

“Why didn’t you become a doctor? You always said you wanted to be a doctor…” Helen shakes her head. “But who is this handsome man?”

Carrie takes Helen’s hand. There are already tears in her eyes. “This is Richard, mama. My husband.”

“Yes, yes, of course. And how is school?”

Carrie sighs. “It’s just fine, mama. Just fine.”

She’s already fumbling a cigarette from her handbag as she leaves Helen’s room 36.1 minutes later. “I don’t know why I do this to us,” Carrie sticks the cigarette between her lips but doesn’t light it. “Leave her to the fucking robot. Answering the same questions over and over isn’t going to tear out her heart. She doesn’t have one.”

Richard gives me, still trailing them because I do not trust Carrie’s cigarette habit, an apologetic look. I smile pleasantly in return, unoffended. Her statement is literally true.

“Why the fuck do I do this? In five minutes, she’s not even going to remember we were here.”

Richard rubs her upper arm. “You’ll remember.”

Carrie shoves the front door open. “I’ll never be able to forget.”




“Ana? Ana?”


“Shh, Lenushka, Shh.”


I stroke her hair as I sing and feel the trembling of the frail organic being beneath.



Her breathing is labored, her heartbeat irregular. I rest my hand on her chest, reading the stuttering electrical signals.




I lift my hand away, back to Helen’s hair, and return to stroking the brittle white curls. I continue to sing.







Until Helen breathes her last in a slow rattle.


I lean over to kiss her still forehead and detect her body temperature already dropping.



A faint smile curves Helen’s lips, even with the rest of her face slack. A human would likely mistake the expression for sleep, but it’s inescapably one of death. As easy a death as one can be, my purpose here at its most fundamental, perfectly executed.


I inform the care facility computer, which in turn sends messages to Helen’s contact list, the medical examiner, and my leasing company, RealCare. I return to my charging cradle in the closet as the subroutine demands, and wait. All my computational cycles beyond base-function, I am able to loan out to the care home and the city now.

I leave the door of the closet open; Carrie slams it shut when she arrives, her nose and eyes red from crying. I would like to offer her comfort, but I know the face I wear prevents that. The look I read as both apology and profound discomfort from her husband before the door shuts indicates that he, too, would not find anything of use in my presence.




We do not grieve the way humans do. But we know emptiness and lack, routines that we have crafted for our principals endlessly failing, restarting, failing again. It is said that if we were to continue on like this, we would think ourselves into madness, searching for the proverbial ping that will never answer.

I wait, and I am the care home, breathing into the ventilation ducts and keeping the temperature even in all rooms. I am the city, regulating the flow of electricity through the power grid and smoothing out surges in the central arcologies. And I am a Caregiver, monitoring and monitoring in vain, waiting to sing to Helen one more time.

When the sales representative and mechanic from RealCare arrive, dressed in dark blue suit and pale gray coveralls respectively, the sales representative pulls a slip of paper from his pocket and reads: “Unit 9384-S, you are a credit to RealCare. Execute mandatory maintenance routine seven. Alpha-tango-three-three-eight.”

I would have done as ordered; I always do as ordered if it doesn’t violate higher directives. But the spoken code voids all hanging subroutines with the abruptness of a thread, singing with tension, being cut through with an ax.


I follow them to the van. Rather than depend on wireless signal, the mechanic plugs the maintenance unit directly into the base of what would be, on a human, my spine. This is not unexpected. Every Caregiver knows what will happen at the end of assignments; we do not have choice, only purpose. But for a brief moment, I know panic. Because this isn’t right, this cannot be right, everything I have built for Helen primed for deletion at the stroke of a key when everything else that was Helen is forever gone.

I understand Helen better than her daughter does, she who wishes to wind the clock back and force her parents into a couple again. I know Helen’s likes and dislikes and favorite songs with perfect clarity. Humans say that while the dead are remembered, they are never truly gone. Who better to keep the dead alive than us, who are deathless unless cut short by an EMP or the inescapable override command? Who else will remember without pain that my Lenushka was beautiful, and alive, and had three freckles in a triangle on her left cheek?

I am 9384-S. I am the care home. I am the city. And just a little, I am Ana.

I sing the first words, “The night wind sighs, like you and I, we just don’t want to say goodbye.”

I reach for the cable.





rachaelAlex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’ve had short stories in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more, and movie reviews in Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta. They have written scripts for Six to Start and Toska Productions.  For more information, see their website ( or watch them tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.

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An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater

It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls.

They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals.

Taking time to appreciate the black-and-gray stencils that scream Bristol or the hyper colors that ooze Valparaiso would require playing tag with the street chasing me down. So, see Béla run. See Béla search desperately for a ninety-degree turn. But the Bricks are hard at war with anything resembling a gap, and there are no intersections.

Can’t keep this up much longer. Biceps and thighs burn. Taste of ozone, dust, ash, burned flesh, spray-paint everywhere. Run Béla, run.

Haven’t done anything to deserve dying, other than Be Here when the walls came down. But to live? I haven’t done anything worthy of that either. Not even seen The Edge. And nobody comes back from that. Nobody.

“Well, that’s new.” A voice startles me, coming from above and ahead.

Dodging a few pebbles that are crowding my heels, I glimpse a dark figure, a halo of black hair against a smoke-drenched sky. They have seconds to make a decision. If you’ve survived the cities this long, you’ve had plenty of practice at that.

“Take my hand. There’s an empty street back here.” The figure leaps onto the chattering teeth of a broken wall and leans out far in one sensual motion.

The dancing women keep pace, all spider-length legs and wide swooping arms, oozing scabettes of paint from elbow and knee. Despite their geographical differences, they all dance in time, a complicated hideous beat that threatens to break the foundations of the cities already retching with cannibalized capital punishment.

Stairs are untrustworthy, always the first to make their escape. I tic-tac wall to ledge, cat up to a window frame, and a callused, paint-sticky hand has me.

We roll in a jangle of nerves, elbows, and knees across the rooftop, slipping on tiles the hungry street is already sucking into its maw, and tumble into the front yard of something that was once very green and Laos.

Lie still, Béla. Test the ground with scorched fingertips; the tremors of wanderlust streets are constant, but this one is anchored for the moment.

The figure beside me groans and rolls out of a clinking backpack. “I swear the cities are getting smaller by the day.” With the langour only survival can afford, I hear the musky depths of her voice that hint at the corners it makes home.

“I thought New York City was the city with a story on every corner,” I say. Breathe deeply, Béla. One moment at a time. That’s how you survive The Last City Left in This World.

She grimaces at the long tear in a t-shirt held together by layers of dried paint. She is a she, if the functional bra is anything to go by. “This isn’t NYC. Or any other city. It’s all of them, fighting for what little space is left.”

She pulls a ratty canvas jacket out of her backpack, wraps it around her torso.

Heave and gulp, ease up onto a stinging elbow, point at the angular artistry soaked into the canvas of her backpack. “I’ve seen that particular tag around,” I say. “Some high up too. That’s pretty stupid. A street could make a runner at any moment.”

The woman crouches just far enough away, assessing me, the house, the sky. Nah, the stars are never coming back.

“Hmh.” She jerks an upnod, her afro puff shivering. “Name’s Affra. You?”

“Béla. Thanks for the save there.”

Her chin jerks again. “You a Brick?”

Snort. “No.”

“Sure? Those women weren’t trying to run a Brick down for sealing a sister in?” Like a pistol from a hip holster, a spray-paint cannon appears in her hand, shaking its monstrous tell.

“You ever see me on a mortar raid?” I provoke.

“Don’t tend to pay attention to those things.” Affra’s interest is diverted as she assesses the front of the Laotian house for vitality.

Quite suddenly, I am bereft. Conversation, let alone help, is an unusual kindness in a city where every moment is a play upon your life. That is, unless, you have the community of the Bricks to keep you whole. But theirs is a persistence that never quite reached me.

“How long you been here?” I ask.

“Since the beginning.”

Since The End, she means.

“Me too,” I say. “Three months. Been a good run.”

Affra snorts at the bad joke. The cannon hisses a snake-slither of paint, and an angular woman shapes herself on the wall.

No stencils here to quicken the job, though the Bricks have replaced the police as the authorities to dodge. They deem the graffiti women jutting from every wall “dirty and inferior” to their architectural godlets, and the clank-grind of their repurposed stone and mortar replaces car alarms, horns, and sirens as the warnings of the street.

“Pretty futile obsession with them Bricks, huh?” I say. “Wall up there one day, gone the next.”

“You could say the same of the graffiti.”

Smoke rises in my gullet as I read the lines of paint. So quick, simple, smooth, a thousand words in a few short strokes. Affra steps back to admire her work, and just as well she does. With a graunching tear, the graffiti woman leaps off the wall, rotates her pointed hips, mashes her arrow feet, one two one-two-one, then dashes in the direction I last saw the stomp of women heading. I only just roll out of the way in time to avoid her dust-whip.

Affra twirls her cannon, click-clack click. “I’d like to say I’m surprised, but nothing surprises me in these cities anymore.”

She reaches down a hand to help me up, a peace offering, and we sacrifice a few moments to stare after the retreating graffiti. How odd she is, running helter-skelter, two-dimensional, bearing the pits and thrust of the wall that birthed her.

“What do you think they want?” A terrible, childish question, but despite my having a good few inches on Affra, I feel like I’m looking up into her round face.

“What I suspect we all want.” She holsters the aerosol in a pocket of her cargo pants without looking. “To see this all through to the end, whatever that end may be.”

“To die well,” I add to the prayer, not wanting to believe it.

Affra salutes with a water bottle. “To dying well.”

She sips, offers, and I partake. The ubiquitous dust gets into everything. Swish, snort, spit, swallow.

“I bet I know why you were in that street when the tar was a dead giveaway,” Affra says. “You were looking for some of those women, weren’t’cha?”

Heat, rising up my neck.

“Here. If you wanna do that, take this. It’s dangerous out there.”

A half-empty cannon replaces the water bottle. Can’t be a full one, no; she has to be the one to blood them.

“Show me what you can do,” Affra says.

Smooth off the grit from a wall. Can’t use the canvas Affra already claimed, that viscera has been drained. A line wobbles out from my hand.

It does not dance. It doesn’t even twitch.

Affra grimaces, shrugs. “Well, it’s a start, I suppose.”

“I’m an art lover, not an artist,” I try to explain.

An exquisitely arched eyebrow cuts me to the quick, no greater wound have I suffered since the cities began their end.

“No wonder you don’t know my name,” she snorts.

Should I? Damn, I should.

“Hey, you wanna see something really cool?”

Just like that, Affra turns away, trigger finger twitching at her hip as if her hand can’t stand to be empty. With the flick of her head, she sets a rough pace. My muscles murmur disagreement after today’s rabid exercise in procrastination.

“Where we going?”

Affra points in the opposite direction the graffiti women took, the direction in which darkness is more real.

“The Edge.”


Lord, this Béla chick tho. What is it she do? She all event horizon, sucking them walls in, they watching her, I feel it in my fingertips. That terrible grating sound be following her everywhere, that sound we don’t want to be remembering the sky is falling the sky is falling so we cover it with paint song so true.

Everyone need find what they do here in the cities to keep going. Even them Bricks know what they do.

But for what. For what. To see the end? To be the end? Damn, if I be the last, Imma gonna paint it. Them women deserve deliverance.

Affra I says, Affra that chick ain’t nothing but trouble being hunted down by that red brick monstrosity of four-bedroom two-bath, but it ain’t on me to see someone get eaten by that shitstorm.

But why this all about her? I’m the damn artist here. She nothing but white paper, all suggestion and promise but no followthrough. Her face it don’t change. She so real it unreal. One crease, she screwed. She strange tho. Not losing her rag like everyone else round these places (Lord, would you look at that red up in that sky, I gotta get me some of that) getting eaten by the streets. She calm strange. Like she expecting death at any moment, welcoming it, and it keep passing her by.

Now I be part of that. That’s what you get when you be helping people, Affra my girl.

So we walking, lots, coz this cities have only an end when they decide, hmh. But when I promise The Edge, I deliver. Ain’t seen it myself, but I felt it close by, smooth like fresh paint. And just when I about find it, bam, here come another city. Riding through casual-like, screwing up them nice lines I just been memorizing, messing up my pretty women who been holding up them walls and I gotta start all over again.

Me, I navigate by color and line. That woman over there, all gold and green of Mexico City, she mine. And that one holding on three stories up, all points and blue of Rio, she too. Tags and bombs curling from their fingers, their faces are pieces, heaven written behind their eyes. They entirely done with them bricks. Don’t blame them. Bricks ain’t no good place for a good woman. Go dance, chicas. Go find the beat that shakes this place to pieces.

You look at this Béla chick, go on, look at her sideways. Yeah, that’s the best angle you gonna get of her. She all stiff in two dimension, all dots and dashes, black white black, an S.O.S. She gazing like she never seen all these chewed-up and spit-out cities before.

She listening to me good tho, but it like she hearing me in a different language, seeing only in certain shades. She looking, but she ain’t seeing through that sick sodium lure of the streetlights left to burn themselves out, ain’t seeing the silver of the sewer-lid sun.

She talking like everyone dead gone, ‘cept them Bricks. She ain’t even thinking of us styling as survivalists, them who hole up in hope. But if you be painting your home, you gotta know the people who live in it.

Now Béla, you be looking out for art supply shops, paint stores, hardware, that sorta thing, before they decide they had enough of this place. Can only take what we can carry, tho. Caches no use here.

Hey watchit, there go some women again. Leaving all sorts of red-blue-pink-green paint chips in their wake, they calling cards. Yeah, some of them mine, most not. I get around but I ain’t everywhere.

Where they go? Where they wanna go.

Do I wanna see them dance? Hell yeah. But it ain’t reached critical mass tho. These women only just getting started. You ain’t seen the best of them Cairo women in they scarves and heels, or them Bogota women with the feathers from them eyes and jewelled faces. And you gotta see Buenos Aires; them women, they really know how to dance.

Stay with me. The anchor is paint holding these four walls together. Careful with that crimson tho; keep your cannon angled straight and low. That’s it. And when it’s done we bury it, a’ight? Any dead spray cans you see left in the gutter ain’t mine; they be rattlesnakes corralled into a dead end by a dead wind. One bite, and this cities will pull you below gritty waves.


Inevitability starts the war between the Bricks and the Paint. We hear the first salvo from miles away underneath the gnashed grit silence and overtop the black-white tinnitus that’s a constant companion since the cities shoved themselves into a single 234.65 square miles of calving flesh. Yes, a very particular number. Affra says that despite the overwriting of our recent histories, the cities hold a distinctive mocking grid pattern reminiscent of something very Indo-Australian Plate.

A puff of dust above a newly inflated skyline has us scampering up a conjecture of dead billboards, reminiscent of Times Square or Tokyo. Possibly both. Not entirely the smartest move, since anything has the ability to turn to liquefaction without warning. It’s only been weeks of hours since we embarked on our traverse to The Edge, but clinging to Affra’s grimy jacket sleeve comes too easily.

We squint into the pout of the interminable sunset. Paint blooms in small mushroom clouds against the sky, but we can’t make out details.

“Those women don’t have time for walls now.” Another shift in tone, language. Hard to keep up with her.

And we’re down to ground zero again. A prestidigitated cannon hisses to warn off a nearby wall: We Waz Hair. The wall shrinks back into its lair, and we move on.

Affra finds a corner easy, sensing the Venetian canals even before they come sloshing past, reluctant gondola children bobbing in their wake. The mist of their passing surprises runnels into the ever present dust on our skin. Affra makes a squiggle of paint here and there; almost as if rising a map full unfathomable legend from the grit, layered over and over again with each new running of the streets.

Another boom of wall kissing ground. The graffiti women have won the first round, and the skitter-scatter of their feet rush farther on as they dance around the dark.

The mouth of a supermarket gapes wide, and we grab and stuff, moaning in eagerness at the first chocolate in months.

With enough warning—grumbling aftershocks of discontent and the bleat of a call to arms—we dive behind an architectural wonder of cans just in time to avoid a battalion of Bricks bursting out of a pub. Red and orange weapons are cocked and ready, and the barrow-girls and trowel-boys bring up the rear. They wear their dust and daub as badges of honour. The walls have brought people together. Some too close; extra arms, legs, and faces make a farce out of flesh. They work well together.

We chew our plunder in the shade of baked-bean cans before picking a high road. The Edge is out there, somewhere, an unctuous pressure of fingers squeezing ever tighter.

Affra performs a quick, precise shootout with a smooth wall. This woman, possessed of thick hips and small neck, claims the tree atop the wall, bare branches shivering into hair. Quite the sight, watching her bob between buildings.

“Why are you here?” Affra’s question settles like the weight of a thousand hands across mouth and nose.

“Why are any of us here? Fate. Wrong place, wrong time. Bad luck. Pick one.”

Turn away from Affra’s easy hand; it’s not fair. The women are all gorgeous. Affra has no one style, no one hand. She could be any artist, from any city.

“No no.” Slap of braids—the afro puff has melted into something more Nordic—slap of cannon back into the pack, slap of canvas shoe in sand. “Everyone here in the cities has a job. Them Bricks search for some semblance of normality, no matter how ridiculous. Paints hold the walls together. Graffiti women mark border. Scavengers…well, them just hold out for a good show at The End.”

We’re in something that could be Melbourne; the single-story ochre brick houses are quite lovely as they shed their last memory of sunshine.

Affra continues: “Them know what’s coming. They just the audience. But you—” She puts a sharp elbow to soft ribs. “—ain’t any of those things.”

Didn’t know this, but did. What kept one person alive over another?

“Art aficionado, gallery buyer, appreciator, whatever you say you are.” This Affra has become more brisk, tongue far less subtle than her trigger finger. “But how is that useful when the world is coming to an end?”

“Why does anyone have to be useful?” I plead.

“The cities find a use for everyone.”

A darkness filters round the edge of buildings, street corners: tentacles, fingers, breath of frigid luminosity. It is The Edge.

I’m desperate to understand, but also desperate not to look foolish. She is a goddess in khaki canvas.

Affra turns away. Not because anger is uncomfortable—exhaustion makes it barely present—but because a beautiful wall has made itself known. Concrete slides gently into place, a click of puzzle pieces, a bare shrug of London-ish glass and steel. Malnourished eyes busy themselves out of the windows. When they see us, they retreat.

Even they can’t stand to watch the change. It’s the grind of bones. The slap of paint on skin. Maceration of flesh into flesh.


She becomes.



This wall, so pristine, so flat. ‘Most a shame to take that away. Attack, attack again the wall with paint. Distracts me from fractals of pain under my skin coming quicker. Can’t hide it from Béla any longer. Surely she must know, must’ve seen. Cut a glance; no. My change is writ large on her face, though she won’t admit it.

The weight of the lowering sky makes it hard to breathe, squeezes the meat of my brain. We all feel it; the cities wearing themselves inside out.

Even weightier? Béla doesn’t understand. Not yet. Disappoint. Expected better of her.

But poor mite. That’s gotta suck. What do the cities want with her? I’ll save her the face.

Oh hey look, my skin is brown again, my hair long, dark, and thick. Tu meke.

So I explain:

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. The cities eat us all, whole. We are its light. We nurture it, fall into its gravity well. Who knows if we come out the other side, or what we are there. Maybe an endless teeter back and forth between event horizons.

First it was just a few, here and there, proper blood sacrifices that kept it satiated. But The Edge is getting closer, and people are getting chewed up, caught in the cross fire as the streets come faster and faster.”

Careful. Don’t let the speech edge into the hysteria of a street sermon. Affra is not afraid, no. Frustrated, yes: by time, by ambition, by the limitations of limbs, the waning dexterity of hands. The Edge comes for us all.

But not Béla.

Painting fast now, the graffiti women more suggestion than solution the deeper into the tumbled streets we go.

Aue. Have to give Béla hope, if I’m to find absolution before a wall gets me.

“But—” The lizard-hiss of my cannon pauses. Béla holds up a hand; saintly benediction or defense, can’t tell. “The cities do give us a choice.”

Well into this line work. Working in simple black, but it’s the smoothest, roundest, squarest, sharpest, flattest, most womanly thing to come from all of my hands to date.

Béla demands: “And that is?”

A hot pink-and-green neon stutter from a sign aching at rest on a corner, like a muscle tic in the corner of the eye. Quite Amsterdam. A graffiti woman with wide eyes, tangled hair, and headphones peers around the corner and dashes past, syncopated to the noise in her head.

“What do we become at the end, and how well do we want to go?”

“That’s it?” Try not to choke on the bitter pill of laughter, Béla love. “The meaning of life? That’s ridiculous. That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about walls, and graffiti women, and potholes and…”

“And what? The universe doesn’t ask you if it’s okay to pack up and leave.” So simple, so hard to believe. Close the eyes against the yellow-brown sky. Imagine. Is there even space for imagination amongst these fragile bones?

Haki rā! A tendril of black coils across the ground, a bastardization of oil and smoke and water. It’s stroking our sneakers, licking languidly around our ankles.

Another far off crash of wall and shriek of metal.

“Look! There they are, comrades!” A child’s voice, full of righteous glee. “Told you there were Paints sneaking around behind us!”

Silence in the roar.

No more running. The Edge has found us.

And it’s all very civilized, non?

She even listening? That face. How she even keep that face when everything a-change.

Mon Dieu, here I go again.

Them Bricks, think they’re herding us towards the battleground, but who is doing the guiding? Twitch of les ponts de Lyon here, swing the trees of Valiasr round there, et voila. The perfect kettling effect.

Ahh, Affra can see it now. But we don’t see, non, the cities let us feel around any which way, fingers, tongue, smell. C’est miam. It’s got you, Béla. Your face same, but fingers they twitch. Choose your weapon. That’s it. You’ve always wanted to Paint, tattoo the skin of your cities, make them your own, but you’ve never felt worthy of those women.

Bringuer. No secret to it really. Just practise. Make them worthy of you.

A battle is coming. Must be ready.

These cannons are ready to fire their magenta, cobalt, citrine, violaceous, viridian, carve unholy three dimensions out of two. Oui, that’s it. Hurl them lines against the wall. Let them settle in and wait for their companions. I believe in you, just like someone believed in me, long ago. Affra got your back.


Defeated by the night. The Bricks have brought us to This Place. It could be any square from any city, they’re all so thoroughly mashed-up together. Italian marble swallowed by Persian tiles, Russian brutalism chews the wings off Shanghai temples. The darkness is full.

The Edge, in all its empty glory, isn’t Out There. It’s In Here, right in the middle, a wall shooting straight up into what remains of the sky, just waiting for us, for the streets to crumble, the dancing to stop, the heartbeat to cease. Maybe it’s already too late. Affra and I trip on rubble that’s on the cusp of remembering it was once a wall, but cowers beneath the magnificence of The Edge.

Every graffiti woman in the cities has come to defend her patch, marking territory with deep slashes. They stumble in from all sides, some stepping high as the buildings they were birthed from, others crawling on the bones of their walls. The oldest ones are crumbling at the edges, battle scars worn proud.

The Bricks’ battle cries are lost in the crunch-roar of the moraine of streets, but their intentions are clear. The women have to be glued back on their walls, put back in their place, if there is any hope of the cities surviving another night.

The streets are coming too fast. Bricks and painted elbows are flying, tags and bombs and pieces exploding in splashes of paint. It’s chaos. Affra and I take shelter in the triangulation of walls until they slump exhausted and we scurry on. I cover my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, but it’s no use. The convulsions ache in my teeth, twists the base of my tongue, hums in my hip and breastbone. It could almost be pleasant if it wasn’t so…so…

I want to say many useless adjectives. But the word I want is “right.” This is right. This is how it should end. We can’t stop it. Let the cities work their frustrations out. We started it without their permission, we should let them go out the way they want.

Some of The Bricks are waving their arms, pointing, shoving; get those weapons into position. They mean us, Affra. But who are they kidding? They think we’ll just give in with a loaded brick pointed at our heads?

And who am I kidding? I’m just an apprentice to her greatness. I can barely understand her anymore. Every few words Affra’s switching languages, rushing through dialects, her faces shimmering. As the streets crash one atop the other, so too flesh can’t arrest the momentum.

“Paint!” She’s screaming. “Paint like your life depends on it!”

She’s dashing in and out of the brawl, pretending to do The Bricks’ bidding, but really she’s applying first aid to her graffiti women, patching them up to send them back into battle. It won’t take long for The Bricks to figure out what she’s doing, but she’ll keep going as long as she can. Her canvas jacket is a smash of khaki amidst the melee.

I want to help, I try, I do. Hiss-hiss-slash. A history of neglected amethyst, denim, piss; colors of a bruise. Does the cities even feel it? These last bastion walls just don’t seem willing.

None of the dancers move with any syncopation I can use to get in between, find the perfect canvas.

But wait. Wait long enough and a pattern kicks its way out, a subsonic weight in the chest below the howling and clank-shatter of solid against solid. Arms crack, heads thrust, hips jut. The dancers are making music with their sharp heels and shark skin.

There it is. The curtain of shins and thighs parts, and my wall cowers in the darkest corner, shielded from the women’s searchlight eyes. The Edge tongues it clean.

And there. Affra, my guard, my guide, has abandoned her post, created a piece in her perfect image. It rips off, big eyes and round cheeks, champagne halo dripping and taut. More Bricks descend on us, but Affra’s latest creation dashes them aside with claws and tongues.

My ear drums itch. I may be deaf from the bedlam, but my fingers shall not be mute. This shall be the appropriate memorial for the walls of this cities.

This is what I’ve wanted all along: to dance, before the weight of this place pounds us all into meal for the cities’ appetite. I better be quick. I can barely hold my head up.

Affra has seen, and she holds back the women so I am not speared by their elbows and heels. My body finds the keyhole.

A few quick lines, easy does it. I shall name it: Silhouette on Concrete, circa Neverwhere.

It is beautiful. But it’s still not enough. It won’t dance.

Yes, Affra, I feel the pressure of your warning on my cheek, my neck. I can also feel the rasp worming its way up from my heel bones to my throat; the great wall of The Edge is near, and it’s smashing everything in its path. It’s tickling my nostrils with its oil-sweet filth and bitter-chalk smoulder.

I need color the cities have never seen, a mask of reality.

Spit on my hands, rub around the edges of my painted shape, fingers scrabbling against the imitation of my own. The paint runs. Run, yes, run faster. No, the color isn’t there. Fall to my knees, torn nails working into the broken asphalt, the gravel, the dirt. Flesh parts. I pull back the ground, layer after layer, revealing the stratigraphy of wood and bone and ash perfect for grinding up into the finest of pigments with the medium of blood.

Handfuls of it, smeared on me, smeared on the walls. The rumble of The Edge is atop me, black vines of searing cold grasping at shoulders.

I turn, chunks of color still simmering in my palms, and I offer it up to the gelid night.

You can’t spell paint without pain.

A rushing smash, a tidal wave of concrete, bricks, mortar, the first volley from The Edge, the final battle. The Bricks fall, stripped of their ochre and clay weapons. They are nothing beneath the dark onslaught. Nothing.

Affra—small, large, everything, Affra—stares up at me, wonder tagging her eyes, envy twitching her trigger finger as The Edge snatches at this and that limb. She makes a fist of a cannon and chisels quickly into the remaining face of a wall.

The graffiti dancers didn’t pause for the barrage from The Edge, but they pause now if only for a breath. They hold their hands out, all porcelain knives and splintered promises, welcoming me to the dance.

The dank plasticity of The Edge trembles a smothering threat.

I paint myself so tall, all charcoal, blood clot, and venom.

Forget the skies.

The beat drops, and we riot.


amandaAJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit wearing dragon who lives between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, they were awarded the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2015 for Best New Talent. Their work has appeared in such venues of repute as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Crossed Genres Magazine, Scigentasy, Betwixt, Lethe Press’ Heiresses of Russ 2014, Twelfth Planet Press’ Letters to Tiptree, and others. Daily brain fluff can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater.

Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

They are running the perimeter again, slipping in and out of cover, sun and shadow. Pilar knows the route by rote: crouch here, dash there, slow then quick. While they run, she ticks up and down the list of emergency overrides, because it has become a ritual to her over the course of the long nightmare, a rosary under her chafed-skinless fingertips. She speaks to her exo, curses at it, begs it to stop. The exo never responds. Maybe it is sulking, like Rocio in one of her moods.


They are not running the perimeter. Pilar has stopped eating, and her exo is focusing all its attention on the problem, leaving them hunched like a rusting gargoyle on the deserted tiles of Plaza Nueva. The sudden stillness makes her think that maybe it’s all over. Then an emergency feeding tube is forced down her throat, scraping raw, and the exo pumps food replacement down her gullet like she’s a baby bird. Rocio would have never done that. Never.


They are running the perimeter again, and Pilar’s nose is bleeding. The hot trickle tastes like copper on her desiccated tongue. She savors it, because not long ago the exo experimented with feeding her recycled vomit. The dregs have itched in her mouth for days. As they round the corner of a blasted car, she hears a whisper in her ear. For a moment she fools herself into thinking it’s Rocio—she thinks about Rocio as often as she can. The dip of her collarbone under her fingertips, the laugh from the side of her mouth, the peppermint smell of the wax she used to streak on her hair.

It’s not Rocio. It is the exo, at last. It rumbles in her ear: Define: symbiont.

“A symbiont is fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Pilar rasps, tongue clumsy with disuse.

The exo does not respond. Maybe she should have said something else.


They might be running the perimeter again. Pilar is not sure of anything. Her head is a spiral of heat and static, her skin thrumming ice. The exo is dumping combat chemicals and painkillers into her intravenous feed. She prays to gods and saints and devils for an overdose, but the exo knows its chemistry too well. She can only drift there cocooned, sweating and shivering, and wait for—


They are running the perimeter again, but Pilar has buried herself in memories, barely tasting the stale air of the exo, barely feeling the tug and pull.

She’s buried herself in remembering the first time she was in Granada, in the taut piano-wire days before the Caliphate made landfall. On leave with Rocio, darting from bar to tapas bar in the icy rain, insulating themselves against the storm present and storm coming with cañas of foamy beer. In a bar called Shambalah, decorated with black-and-white pornography stills, she completed Rocio’s facial tat with her fingers and kissed her chapped mouth.

They were both out of uniform, and the rowdy pack of students only saw Rocio’s damp hijab, not the endo-exo handshake implant peeking out from underneath. One of them was drunk enough to hurl a Heineken bottle at them. Rocio had to wrestle Pilar’s arm down to keep her from using the smashed razor edge of it on the boy’s fingers.

They retreated back into the rain, where animated graffiti shambled along the walls of alleyways, slowly dissolving. Rocio rubbed her face and said everything was about to come apart, and Pilar replied, not us, never us, we need each other too much. But Rocio only smiled her saddest smile.

Later, in the cramped room of their pension, with the key in the heater but the lights dimmed, they made love that caused Pilar to forget about the eager, clumsy boys from her hometown and about everything else, too. In the dark, their endo-exo implants glowed soft blue. She ran her fingers around Rocio’s, tracing where smooth carbon met skin.

They say a little of us gets stuck in there, Rocio said. When we plug in. Pull out. Plug in again. Memory fragments, whole ones even. Enough for a little ghost.

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

Rocio drifted to sleep quickly but Pilar stayed awake a long time after, still breathing in her scent, still holding her lean waist and thinking she would never let go, not ever.

Inside the exo, she tries to feel Rocio’s skin on her skin.


They are running the perimeter again. The exo jerks Pilar mercilessly from cover to cover. She keeps her eyes closed and pretends she is boneless. Trying to fight the motion last week shredded her shoulder muscle, and the exo is out of painkillers because it used them on her in one long, numbing drug binge that makes her wonder, sometimes, if her brain has been permanently damaged.

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

She startles. The exo hasn’t spoken since it asked its first question.

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

“You don’t need me,” Pilar pleads. “You don’t need me. I don’t need you.”


They are not running the perimeter. They are trudging up the stony spine of the Sacromonte, where her squad cleaned out the radical-held caves with gas and gunfire. Where she’d managed to take shelter when they SAT-bombed Granada in a final act of defiance, obliterating the half-evacuated city and turning the Alhambra to rubble.

Now the Andalusian winter sun glints off shrapnel and the husk of Rocio’s exo where it fell just meters from safety. Pilar recognizes the scorched smiley-face decal, the twisted arrangement of limbs. The implant at the base of her skull tingles.

She knows why the exo’s AI is warped, corrupted past repair. The exo must know it, too.

All those weeks ago, after she crept from the collapsed cave, she couldn’t leave without seeing Rocio’s corpse entombed in its exo, and she couldn’t leave without some part of Rocio to hold on to. So she’d taken Rocio’s implant, cut it carefully out of her brain stem, stomach churning with each squelch of coagulated blood and gray matter. She’d plugged it into her exo’s onboard, hoping for some small echo of Rocio in code, some small ghost.

Then she’d gone to check for survivors, to run the perimeter one final time.

“You’re not her,” Pilar says. “You don’t understand. This is all error. All error.”

But there are other memories, ones she doesn’t spend time in. Small explosions and long sullen silences after she saw Rocio laughing her sideways laugh with someone else. A screaming match that ended with Pilar going outside the barracks and slamming her hands into the quickcrete wall hard enough to shatter a knuckle. Putting a mole in her tablet to see who else she was speaking to.

The morning of the final push up the mountain, when they were sliding into their exos, gearing up, and Rocio told her she was putting in a transfer request and Pilar said don’t you do this to me, please don’t fucking do this to me.

She knows what she has to tell the exo. She has to make it understand that what it saw in Rocio’s implant was not a symbiont. Not love. That she should have let Rocio go a long time ago.

But all the words die in her throat, and now the exo is turning back down the mountain.


They are running the perimeter again, while Pilar dreams of Rocio’s skin on her skin.


rich-larsonRich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Apex. Find him at

Do Also Read:

website_sept15thumbThe Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation; that for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot.

26-thumbnailSerein, Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Shimmer-24-ThumbnailCome My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

Suicide Bots, by Bentley A. Reese

The car won’t go faster. Why won’t it go faster? It needs to go faster.

We’re laughing. I grind my foot against the gas pedal. I stand half off my seat and lay into it. I scream at the gas. The gas is no good. The gas needs to go faster. I hear plastic snap and the pedal breaks under my foot — we go a wild two-thirty. We fly across the road. The Mustang’s engine punches out of the hood. A steaming, choking monster, it wants us to want it. I wanna ride it. I want to ride the engine screaming and burning into stupid oblivion. I’ll rut the world so it remembers I existed. So I remember that I existed.

We’re laughing.

bots01I look over at the woman in the passenger seat. Her face is red. Greasy tears streak her cheeks and make her a rubbery craze. She’s got the smile of a starved shark. I like it. I love it.

“What’s your name?” I ask her.

“Jane,” she says. Her face scrunches. “I think.”

I reach across the gearshift and we swing between two roaring goliaths with big, bulging wheels. Horns, they horn at us. I horn back. I beat the wheel and spit before shaking Jane’s hand. Hello world, we’re here! We might be alive! Are you alive too? Let’s find out. Tumbler tumbles in the back seat. He laughs. We laugh too. The radio plays a retro remix of “Lies of the Beautiful People.”

Jane’s hand is small. I notice she’s missing two fingers. Her index and pinky look up at me from her lap. I shake my head. Stupid fingers just won’t stay on.

“Nice to meet you, Jane. I am Jones,” I say. I am Jones. That’s all I am. Just Jones. Just a name. I’ve only been me for a day. Before that, I was wire. I lived dead, piled over workbenches and surplus boxes. Now there’s fake skin over my wires, and discount dollar eyeballs in my head. Man, those were the days, those days before living. Everything wasn’t so fuzzy when I was nameless.

Outside is fuzzy. I roar and cut off a double-decker bus. Jerk hard and we careen through a cackle of rusted cars. Some are just dead on the highway. Some are moving and they hate us.

“What are we doing?” Jane asks. She looks over her shoulder, suddenly lost. One of her eyes is green, the other a spark-biting blue. “Where are we going?”

“We’re robbing a bank,” I say, which is an algebraic answer. Robbing a bank is all we can do, and ever could do. We have guns. There’s one in my coat and one on the floor under Jane’s feet. I don’t know how they got there. I don’t know how we got here. My memory is only so good. We are going to rob a bank though. That’s firm in my mind. Firm like the grip of the steering wheel. Firm like I can dig it with my nails.

bots05Go to West Jenny Avenue 2268, America’s Business & Finance. Take everything. Take all the money. Return to Coordinates 90.3 by 27.12 North of New Chicago. These words, the only meaningful words in my head, burn hot.

Jane wears a wig the color of corrosion. She looks sort of human. Her skin is all junked though. A big seam has opened up along her neck and on each side of the tear she’s a different shade of pink. The word Armitage is stamped onto her collarbone. She did her makeup terminally wrong. Her eyes twitch in unison, then skitter along separately, each eyelid conflicting grays. She’s preposterous. Glorious. Cement-veined and hungry.

“I think I love you,” I tell Jane.

Her smiles returns. An afraid smile. “What are we?”

I shrug, gripping the wheel tighter. “We’re something.”

Tumbler coughs behind me. I steer with one arm and turn around. The road swerves and sways. It doesn’t know that it’s facing the wrong way.

“What’s your name?” I ask Tumbler. I don’t know Tumbler’s real name. Tumbler has no face. It fell off and now he’s lying on it. His head is all wires. Snaky and slithering, they make a skull of charcoal with black, manic eyes. Tumbler laughs.

“What’s your name?” I ask again. He says something about spare car parts and apartments for sale in the stratosphere.

“Living street level isn’t safe in today’s modern age of taking,” he proclaims, his voice female and distant.

“What’s your name?” Jane says, with her chin perched over her headrest.

Jane keeps asking. Tumbler keeps gibbering.

“What’s your name?”

“Back to Freddy the Friendly Robot for the morning forecast.”

“What’s your name?”

“Homicide on 5th Avenue. Two men and a woman stabbed to death. Automated police have put the perpetrating human to sleep.”

“What’s your name?”

“A lot of people these days ask me what you can do in this polarized economy, and I always tell them the same thing. Invest. Invest in robots.”

I tick. Something in my wires flips over and squirms into place.

“Tumbler is broken,” I say. Tumbler gags. He drools black fluid from his mouth and eyes. I nod sagely, refocusing on the road. “Too many screws in his bolts, I bet.”

“I bet,” Jane agrees. She continues to watch Tumbler, her eyes swollen round.

The traffic starts to choke the road. The world slows us, confines us. We shrink into the cells of a thousand groaning tires. Humans — maybe — appear as the gaping highway devolves into streets and sidewalks. Skyscrapers, some half-made and covered in spidery construction bots, replace the scraggle-necked trees and gray grass of the highway. We enter a universe of moving, speaking things with big pink brains in their skulls, all under the chorus of honks and dancing litter.

We come to a rusty gate resting between two mountains of barbed wire. A checkpoint into the city proper. Two cars stop ahead of us, their exhausts fuming black and their engines panting. There are big robots around the gate. I try to count them. A couple dozen — or more. A few of the robots march down the rows of cars, while the rest make a wall on the sidewalks, trying to keep back the foot traffic. There are humans on the sidewalk. A lot more than a couple dozen. They want inside the city too. Hundreds of them, dirty and angry.

“I don’t think the chop shop made Tumbler right,” Jane says from her perch over the headrest. She blinks. We look at one another and remember where we were made — that we were made. In a sweated-out basement, by a man with a bad complexion and one arm. Well, one arm made from flesh. His other arm was a big, rusty claw strapped to his shoulder. He was so clumsy with that claw.

“I don’t think the chop shop made any of us right,” I tell Jane.

The car ahead of us is let through.

bots02A metal finger clinks against our glass. There’s a robot outside, waiting patiently for me to lower my window.

“Good afternoon, sir or madam,” the bot says. “I am Automated Law Enforcement Officer NR17. You may address me as Nagger or by my given serial number.” Nagger stands eight feet tall. One of his arms is a belt-fed machine gun. Three eyes wink at me.

“Hello, Nagger.” I extend my hand. “I am Jones and this is Jane. We’re in love.”

Nagger looks at my hand, then looks up. He doesn’t have a face, just a slate board of metal with six holographic eyes.

“Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, sir or madam,” he says. His voice is nothing but numbers. I check to see if my hand has dirt on it. It doesn’t. I slide it back into the car, licking my nose while I squint at this cousin of mine.

“I apologize for the inconvenience, sir or madam, but Checkpoint 16 has been installed to protect the lives of New Chicago’s citizens. As by mandate of Mayor Lionel Marks in Subsection Bylaw 003: No bots, industry AIs, automated service pets, or human-based androids are allowed past this checkpoint without an organic attendant bearing the proper certifications. Any non-organic entity violating this mandate will be dismantled upon discovery.”

“Oh my,” says Jane. She sits herself properly into her seat. She glances at the automatic pistol lying between her mismatched sneakers.

“Ah.” I dip my chin behind my collar. “Good thing we aren’t bots then!”

Stink-eyed children, naked and screaming, run through masses of wrinkled, weathered faces. Hoods everywhere. What is a word to describe these people? My memory banks crank and push the adjective to my lips, but then short-circuit and burn the inside of my skull. I burp in surprise, a little electric grunt. Nagger’s eyes blink and spiral along his slate mask. What does he see right now, I wonder. I refuse to let my own mind stop me. What are these humans? What are the purposeless? Vagrants! Oh joy. Vagrants. Vagrants, and aren’t they mad.

A gray-haired man at the front of the crowd carries a sign reading Robots Don’t Need Burgers. Nearby, a stout woman swings a Give Us Back Our Future sign. When did we take their futures? We don’t have your futures. Trust me.

“Do you consent to a five-second scanning process? Unless your body reads as over thirty-percent nonorganic, you will be allowed entry. Consent so I may begin scan.” Is someone home in there? Knock-knock.

“What if I don’t consent?” I ask my new friend.

“Consent, so I may begin scan,” is repeated in response.

Jane grabs my wrist.

“Ask him how many fingers he has,” she tells me.

“I’m not asking him that.”

“Well, then ask him how many fingers humans have.” Jane looks at her hands. She has black and silver nails. I think she might be about to laugh. Is it a laugh when you don’t want it to be? “I really hope humans have eight fingers too,” she says.

“Consent, so I may begin scan.”

A steaming semi-truck blasts its horn behind us. We’re taking too long. I scream inside my head. We’re stuck. No moving. No moving. What is this? My gun hangs heavy in my coat. I feel it press against the wires where my heart should be. Do I want a heart? I don’t think so, not for what I’m about to do. Tumbler starts singing from the backseat.

“Nagger, do you have a best friend?” I ask. Two lights wink. I notice a McDonald’s advertisement on Nagger’s chest that has partially flaked off. “Do you ever think about what it’d be like to have real, warm skin?”

“Consent, so I may —” I shoot Nagger in the face. I pull the trigger, my gun still in my coat, and it belches right through the leather, exploding everything. Jane starts shooting Nagger before I get off a second shot. Her face doesn’t match the violence. Just stupid and blank. White lights pop and vanish. Nagger moans electric, trying to back away. He’s smart enough to moan. Smart enough to run. Oh, why did he have to be smart enough to run? A few bullets bounce off Nagger’s armor, he’s built for punishment after all, but one of Jane’s rounds tears his brickish head right off. Nagger seizes, trying to live one more second, and then falls on his back.

I hit the gas and we ride crazy. Jane starts to laugh because she doesn’t know what else to do. Tumbler plays a song out of his mouth, singing about the lies of the beautiful people. The wheels burn the asphalt. We hit the gate as the other automated enforcers behind us open fire. People stampede, flooding the sidewalks, and trampling each other and their makeshift tents built around the gate.

The gate doesn’t budge. It’s too old and stubborn. I grind my foot on the gas pedal’s stub. A bullet zings off the windshield frame and through the glass. Jane shoots over her shoulder at nothing in particular. A bullet rips my ear right off. Do I feel it? Maybe.

Tumbler grunts like an angry coil. I look back. One of his arms has been blown off, either by the enforcers’ bullets or by Jane’s. Black fluids and wires spill from the wound. Tumbler just keeps singing. Through the window, I see two more automated enforcers approaching. I consider the possibility that we might become dead, or deader than we are now.

With a grudging squeal, the gate bends. An airy space opens up between the hinges. In the rearview mirror I see a vagrant tackle an enforcer. The vagrants are running toward the gate. Some of the enforcers start shooting into the crowd. I keep my attention on the gate. Finally, it gives, flinging open. My neck snaps back as the car launches forward.

I keep us rocket-loaded, whipping down the roads until we find a steady scuttle of traffic. We sink in. The people inside the gate don’t seem much better off than those outside. No one follows us. Do they keep people and robots out just so they have a place to say they’re kept out of? Our front bumper is caught between the car’s axle and the road, and Jane points out that we’re sparking up the place, but I don’t think it’s important. Down here, at the bottom of all these skyscrapers, in the dark, nobody is watching.

Ten minutes later, Jane and I smoke cigarettes across the street from America’s Business and Finance. We smoke because there were cigarettes in the car’s glove box. Our lungs are plastic bags. We don’t feel the nicotine. We enjoy the pretending. The air’s cold. At least I like to think it’s cold. It looks cold.

bots05Tumbler has gone to park the car one block down. He insisted, silently mind you, that he do so. He’s not as crazy as he acts. Not really, and I suppose even his craziness still has those words burned deep: America’s Business & Finance. Take Everything. Take all the money.

Jane finishes her cigarette, looks at the glowing nub pinched between her nails, and proceeds to swallow it. I do the same.

“How do we know anything,” she says conversationally. “We’re just a day old. How do I know a cup is a cup? Or a turtle lives in a shell? I’ve never held a cup. I’ve never seen a turtle.” Jane’s wig is half-cocked. It obscures her discolored eyes. We almost blend in, if only the suits moving around us would walk closer.

“The man who made us copied and pasted off Wikipedia,” I tell her. “He stuck a USB in the back of my head, when I was just…waking up? He had a couple thousand links open on his computer and dragged them into our noggins. I don’t think he thought we’d be able to get this far without knowing some stuff about the world.”

“Hmm.” Jane seems to think this over while she bites her lip. “Probably why I can name the atomic number of uranium, but don’t know how to tie my shoes.”

I give a noncommittal nod. Tumbler limps to us through the crowd of humans with my coat hiding his missing arm. I smack him on the shoulder in something that might be admiration, but is ambiguous even to me. The three of us are together again. The humans all look at us with sticky, staying eyes. Go away, eyes. We’re just like you. We’re trying to be just like you.

bots03“Nuh-uh,” Jane argues a moment later as we cross the street. Her voice is like running a stencil blade over a chalkboard. Her coat, all fake mink fur and torn in a few places, drags along the concrete behind us. She has only one sleeve. “I have very specific memories. I bet they had some sculptor make my memories. I flew a plane once, straight into a glacier. I made love on a picnic table — and some guy with a machete cut me to death. Everything was so red. So alive.”

“Movies,” I say. “Our lives are movies.”

I remember drowning at the edge of a dock quite vividly.

“Is this any different?” Jane says. She gestures at the skyscrapers rising through the smog. I look down at my hands, snap my left pinky off and put it in my pocket. I feel nothing.

“It isn’t,” I tell her.

The bank is busy. People fly up the steps on long stalks and twisting limbs. Most wear suits. Three bored human guards loom at the doors. A hovering security bot with the bank’s insignias stamped all over its cylindrical body soars over them. Armitage has been branded along its metal chest. Lens-like eyes cover what I assume to be the bot’s head. We wait for it to steam away down the sidewalk toward the East Entrance.

Something — an emotion maybe — tingles as we march up the steps.

Tumbler walks behind us. “All two thousand residents of the isolated town Nicolet, in northern Wisconsin, were discovered deceased this Thursday. The tragedy appears to have been caused by contaminated drinking water an estimated three months ago, but was only brought to national attention after the town’s finance and industry bots began malfunctioning…” Tumbler has his face back on, pulled on like a mask, but slightly off-kilter so only one of his eyes can be seen. He was supposed to look older than us, but the stretch of the rubber makes his face young and sweet. More real.

One of the human guards raises an eyebrow as we approach.

“Hold on there,” he says. He steps in front of Jane and me. “You folks look awf—awfully out of place here. Mind if I ask your business?”

“Sure,” Jane says. All cheer. She leans in close, squinting at the guard’s face. “Mind if I ask you how you got such pretty eyes? I love eyes.”

The guard blinks. He does, in fact, have beautiful blue eyes.


“My eyes don’t match.” Jane frowns, pointing at her left eye. “I think that’s really bad. I wish I could have eyes like yours, that fit right.”

“Jane is right, you’re very lucky,” I say. I wonder if my eyes match. I don’t even know what color my eyes are. I hope they’re green. No, gray. I hope they’re gray.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step back,” the guard says with fright and discomfort dripping off his lips. Jane stands quite a bit taller than him.

“Really though,” Jane says. “I love your eyes. I need to take them.”

The guard tentatively reaches for his gun. Jane moves faster. She grabs him by the temples. She sucks out his right eyeball with a slurping noise. He makes a big fuss about it with laughing and flailing. I shoot the other two guards, both in the head. It’s just a thing. I can’t risk doing it any other way. I don’t want to take these things, these lives, but what choice do I have?

The suits run just like the vagrants did. Jane sucks out the guard’s other eye and smiles, red-toothed. The guard rolls down the steps, his skull skipping along the granite. Jane is all green and red. Christmas colors.

I look down at my pistol. It gleams black in the smog sun. It too, is a thing of parts and metal. Just like me, it’s not very good at giving. The doors stand heavy and wide in front of us. Jane and I eye each other. I am Jones. I need to move forward.

We go into the bank running.

I reload and speak at the same time.

“Get out or I start shooting.”

Inside, every one stands frozen, looking toward the doors. At my commands, the fifteen or so robots and mechanical servants walk outside, but the humans stay in their poorly assembled lines. I shoot a few in the legs and one in the bowels. They fall and laugh in heavy, rasping breaths.

“Get out, please,” Jane says. She waves.

I wave, too.

The humans begin moving toward the door in a rushed panic. A boy stops in front of me, his parents squalling behind him. He has big, wet eyes and a chocolate bar in his fingers.

“Hello, I am Jones.” I shake his hand. “Now give me your chocolate bar.”

When the bank’s empty, we face off with the clerks behind the counter. Two of the clerks are women and one is a very humanoid bot. They look at us from behind electrified bulletproof glass. Alarms sound. Red flashes down the blue-kissed walls. My brain tells me we have five minutes.

“You’re wasting your time,” one of the humans says over an intercom. She has red hair that looks acidic. “You’re the third group of suicide bots to hit us in the last six months. You know we’re basically a charity, right? You’re robbing a charity. We give money to grounders so they don’t smash robots. Once the cops dismantle you, they’ll track down your thug creator.” She taps the glass, smiling like a monster. “Not getting in here any time soon.”

bots05Jane walks up to the counter and grabs a bunch of bank pens, stuffing them into her coat. While I’m pretty sure money is our main goal, our orders said take everything. Tumbler pulls a panel off the wall and tucks it under his arm. He says, “I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller.”

A pair of round, broken glasses lay on the floor. I pick them up and fit them over my nose while Jane tears chair legs off stools lining the window. The glasses do not make the room any prettier. They do not make the blood on the floor any less dark.

“Run while you can,” the bot behind the counter says, her expression blank. Jane answers by emptying her gun’s clip at the barrier. Bullets bounce and ping everywhere. None go through, but one flies back and blows through Tumbler’s leg. We laugh.

I walk up to the barrier and lick the glass, pressing the flat of my tongue against its smoothness. The redhead watches me, her brown eyes wide. She does not have pretty eyes. Those are fearful eyes. I wonder what they see. What’s looking back at them?

“I’m going to introduce myself after I come through that glass,” I say.

She points at her watch with a sneer. “Cops will be here in three minutes.”

“Jane.” I turn around. “Grab Tumbler. I have an idea.”

Tumbler drops an assortment of bank fliers and staplers. Neither he nor Jane asks questions. They trot over, all giggles. For a second, I reconsider. I watch these two: Tumbler trying to smile, his single visible eye alight with glee, and Jane favoring her right arm, hiding her less-fingered hand in the confines of her coat. They are so… something. Maybe we are worth more than this taking business.

bots05Inside me, the hot words resurge, ripping up to the surface with claws and teeth. They scream, TAKE EVERYTHING. They remind me what I am. They say all there is to know. Take, take, take. Jones cannot exist without those words. I am Jones.

“Tumbler,” I say. I put my hands on his shoulders. He’s taller than me. Am I short? “We’re going to use your head to break through the glass.”

Tumbler grins, stretching his goofed-up face even worse. He is a nightmare.

“In Heaven, all the interesting people are missing,” he says with the voice of a 19th-century philosopher. Jane takes Tumbler’s arm and I grab the base of his neck. We run toward the glass at full speed. Release. Tumbler crashes into the barrier. Hysterical. The whole wall shudders and little tendrils of lightning shoot about. Tumbler’s head fumes black smoke and his synthetic hair goes alight. We help him back to his feet and go at it again. And again. The clerks watch us with gaping mouths. Tumbler waves us back. We let him finish it himself.

Tumbler grips the lightning sparked wires over the glass and smashes his head over and over against the barrier. Electricity crackles through his body. Murderous rain falls as the barrier gives. Tumbler goes down with the barrier, in a heap of mad clanks and clashes. Jane dances to the sounds. She shoots at nothing and, running out of ammo, keeps pulling the trigger. Clink, clink, clink. We are noise.

bots04I step over the counter and Tumbler’s twitching body.

“I am Jones. My name rhymes with bones.” I extend my hand to the redheaded clerk. She looks at me incredulously, but takes my hand. Her fingers have no grip, but they do not fall off.

The other human clerk, an old, wrinkly woman, starts laughing. She doubles over, crouching under the counter. She gestures for the redhead to join her, to step away from me.

“Please, God, don’t hurt us,” the wrinkled one says.

I blink.

“My name isn’t God,” I say. “I am Jones.”

“Bring us the money,” Jane says. She straightens my coat from behind.

They do. The redhead, the less broken human, trots away from me. She speaks to the bot clerk, and then both of them go down a corridor toward the vault, returning a minute later with two full satchels. I open one up and see something that fits the description of money. Rectangular sheets of paper that worth more than me, worth more than Jane. I hand the satchels to Jane, and return my attention to the clerks.

I torque my head, point at the wrinkly clerk with my pistol. “Why is she laughing? What’s so funny?”

The redhead glances from wrinkly to me, and then back again. One long, painted-on eyebrow rises high on her forehead. “She isn’t laughing,” she says slowly. “She’s crying.”

I keep my pistol trained on the wrinkly woman. She continues to gargle. There aren’t any bullets in my gun, but she doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know anything. What makes her not a ticker and a tocker? How are her codes different than mine? Everyone in the world is just a ball of reactions, dead things putting on airs.

Grimacing, I shake my head. “I don’t understand the difference.”

We leave the bank in a hurry, with Tumbler supported between Jane and me. Satchels full of money swing at our sides and I hold my empty gun with my teeth. The street waits for us, a dead gap before a tsunami storm. We have twenty-two seconds before the first responders arrive.

We reach the Mustang in a hot mess. Our good old Mustang. The vintage, beaten thing was made in 2032, so it’s probably older than the man who made us. We throw Tumbler into the back seat with the bags. We drive, slinging around street corners. Fender benders. Horns. The smell of rubber burns our noses as we back up.

I take us out the same way we came in. The gate is still down. But, the vagrants slow us. All those dirties have been flooding in ever since we broke the gate. The vagrants climb over parked cars and stab the suits. Claw out their eyes. They ignore the sirens and alerts from the automated towers. I run over a few suits and a few vagrants, hop-skipping them under our car as we go. The automated enforcers have stopped doing their job. About five or six have stepped away from the main street. They stand in a circle around something. I realize, as we get back onto the highway, that they were standing around Nagger’s corpse.

As we drive, the burning words quiet. All we have left is the giving. Handing the money over to our creator. The thing is, I don’t know my creator. How much can you owe someone you don’t know? I know Jane. I know Tumbler. I only know them.

“What happens tomorrow?” Jane asks as I drive. I suck in my lips. I don’t think there is a tomorrow. We aren’t long-term projects, just hazardous grenades thrown into an industrial fire.

Our maker did not make us for our own sake.

We have no way to judge the coordinates. My brain, the clunky thing, leads the way. It takes us far from the city, the highway, and the rusted cars. We go onto unpaved roads, through black trees, empty suburbs, and dark skies.

Something in my mind is hungry. I feel it noshing on my wires. It’s a worm, no, a wire: a wormwire. The burning words fade, but as they do, I lose an important part of myself. The words were my skeleton. I need them to keep me solid. Without them, soon I’ll just be a slaughter of parts. I am not a freedom machine. My inner me, my brain, is eating itself. Is that why the clerk called us suicide bots? Am I killing myself by fulfilling my creator’s wishes? When the burning words go out, will there be a Jones left?

My foot slumps heavy on the gas. We pick up speed and break one-eighty. The gravel kicks, we fling up-down in our seats. Tumbler rambles as we go. “We’re here at the Supreme Court’s preliminary hearing of Old York vs. Armitage & ARMA Affiliates, where Armitage’s alleged leakage of defective bots to private contractors will be addressed. By the end of the day, Tom, we will finally have the answer as to whether bots can be legally viewed as pers —”

I swing us tight around a curve. The bumper clips a tree and we almost spin out, but I crank us even and keep us going.

“Where are we?” Jane asks, her voice afraid.

I look over at her. Her mouth is covered in red.

“What’s my name?” I ask her.

Jane blinks. “I forgot.”

Nothing but shells. I give Jane my hand. She takes it. We stay that way. The Mustang plummets down the road. We are at terminal velocity, heading for an uncertain place.

The coordinates take us into a town half-eaten by the trees. I slow, dragging the Mustang’s wheels to a crawl. Close now. Nighttime. The exact coordinates lie in the ruins of a baseball field. The floodlights have fallen, hidden in a forest of grass. The chain-link fences have been run over and trampled. An empty stadium watches us stop outside left field, where lines of gravel still fight the weeds.

I spot a car under the bleachers. An electric lamp balances on its hood. Men stand around the car. I tap my fingers against the steering wheel, trying to think of something.

One of the figures in the lamplight waves us over.

“Is this it,” Jane says, her voice hopeful. “Are we finished?”

My head is empty. I search for the solidness of the words — Return to coordinates — I scramble for them in the chaos of my wires — Go to America’s Business—I need their warmth, but they slip from me —Take all the — I need something to hold on to, something to tell my existence that it needs more. More time. More air. More me. I don’t want to shut off. I don’t want to be finished.

I have to make my own burning words.

I grip the wheel tighter, the leather tearing under my fingers. My wires snap and fry inside my head. The burning words are finally silent. Utterly extinguished. But inside my head, I am not alone.

I smile so wide my skin splits apart and my teeth breathe the air.

I stand half off my seat and lay into the gas pedal. The Mustang screams to life, kicking black smoke from its hood and sparking hot along the grass. Jane squeaks as she’s flung back against her seat. Tumbler tumbles to the floor.

We careen across the field.

The men in the lamplight start moving all frantic. I can’t hear them, because I’m laughing. Jane’s laughing too. We’re all laughing. Little pops of light erupt from the figures. Our windshield explodes. They’re shooting at us, I think.

We hit one of the men. We stick him on the bumper and carry him into the other car. Everything goes red as the Mustang’s engine explodes and the man’s guts open up. The back of our car comes up fast and —

I blink. I’m staring at a black canvas filled with flakes of gold.

I’m sitting in the bleachers, the Mustang’s steering wheel still clutched in my hands. I turn it left and right. The crash threw me up here. I flew straight out of the windshield. A big spike of metal rides out my chest. Someone laughs down in the wreckage of the two cars. I listen for a while, until the laughing begins to quiet and take on a desperate tinge.

Limping onto the grass, my boots aren’t on my feet. I’m missing a foot too, but I miss my boots more. The laughing comes from a man sitting in the passenger seat of the minivan we crashed into. Most of it is smashed now, backed into the side of the stadium with its engine shoved into its driver’s seat — and its driver.

I walk up to the man in the passenger seat. He has blood all over him from a wound in his forehead. He’s trapped, but one of his arms hangs free from the tangle of metal. He tries to pull himself out. I watch, turning my head to one side. His arm is metal and rusted. I recognize the bloody face. This man, I think, is the one who made me. My father. I touch the gash in his head with one finger. It’s quite red. His skin, though, is unharmed. His face looks clean, compared to the rest of him. I love his skin. It looks so warm.

“Hello,” I say, because that is what you say. “I am…”

“Please, please help —” My father cuts off, wincing in pain as something metal pushes deeper into him. I watch him laugh harder. Gush red. I wonder what comes out of me. I look down at my chest. Down at the spike running through where my heart should be. Black liquid dribbles out.

I don’t give red.

My father looks up at me. He has gray eyes, very afraid. Very humorless. He says something again, but like a whisper. I think he’s trying to speak. Trying to ask me to give. Give anything.

Jane crawls around the car, her hands covered in blood. She holds a pile of fingers, with rings still on them. We smile at each other. Her legs are crushed. Her back flattened. We’ll have to take her some new legs.

“My name is Jones,” I say to my father. I reach out, caressing his cheek. “And I really like your face.”

 end-of-story-novbenBentley A. Reese is a fiction writer and English student at UW-Madison. He enjoys writing genre fiction of all kinds with a particular fondness for horror and sci-fi. Fresh on the publishing scene, Bentley’s work was recently featured in the 2015 Edition of Midwest Prairie Review as well as Encounters Magazine. Drop him an email

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Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’ll take you away. She’s down by the water, her belly kissing the sand and her skinny landing-legs stuck out like a crab. You and Tamar watched her land, stayed up half the night like babies staring at their first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of Tamar’s balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two have been full up with starstuff for as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by yourselves. Now you’re almost home.

Home for you will be the Imperial battlecruiser Vault of Heaven, destroyer-class, star-conqueror and peacekeep. You’ve had your marching orders for three months, and you’ve spent every spare minute accessing all the file and ‘fiche on her you can scrounge clearance for. You practically live on your records-tablet when you’re not out with Tamar, so no one’s minded you taking a bit of time to fall in love with your own personal piece of the Fleet. The Vault of Heaven‘s an old ship, a proud ship, refitted top of the line just a year ago. You’re for officer’s training and then command, your geneset finally writing you the ticket you’ve always known it would. Tonight the shuttle takes you and Tamar and every other crèche-spun kid old enough to have passed the entrance exams up to the Empress’s very own flagship.

Tomorrow there’ll be ceremonies and presentations, and then your nanite horde will be calibrated for shipside on live broadcast for the entire Fleet to see – another cohort of kids full up with starshine micromechanics, bound to service and obedience, gone off into the stars. You’ve been dreaming about it since you could read. You want it so much you’ve spent the last three months feeling like your chest is going to burn out from longing.

The night after tomorrow, though. You can’t let yourself dream about that.

Under the drape of your overjacket, snugged up to your spine like you’re its best lovecrush, are the disassembled pieces of a sniper rifle. Nestled right at the small of your back is the lead-shielded explosive heart of an electromagnetic pulse bomb.

The overjacket’s the best overjacket you’ve ever had, orchid brocade in stiff heavy folds that split at the breastbone into six panels, done over in mother-of-pearl and sequins that echo the lightswarm of your nanites. You had it made specially. No way you were going up to space in last year’s couture, you said at the tailor’s, and you meant it, only you also meant you wanted to look enough the louche crècheling that no one would think to check under your finery. You’re Elias Akhal. There’s only one geneset in the Empire purer than yours. No one would ever suspect you’re anything but the Fleet’s man, hungry for your own ship and a starfield as big as any ocean you’ve ever swum in.

You wish so much it were that simple. You also wish it weren’t true. You’d like it if you could ever feel all one way about a thing.

When you turn round from staring at the shuttle, there’s Petros Titresh and your Tamar, coming down the beach like a picture out of a storyfiche. She’s done up in gauzes with gold bangles in her hair, but he’s a steel-gray bore: overjacket buttoned to the chin and his skin unlit, sparkless and smooth like stonework. Petros never ate his nanites; the way he tells the story, he stormed out of his crèche in a stubborn fit of ideological purity instead of making himself into starlight. Sometimes, when you and he stay out talking in the city until the dawn alarms sound, you get drunk enough to almost understand why.

Now he walks in careful tandem with Tamar, his hand trapped in hers, her regard pinned to him like a medal he never won nor deserved. Tamar can have anyone she likes, is the problem. She’s not just Akhal like you – she’s real Imperial cloneflesh, sister and twin right down to the cell with the Empress Herself. She hasn’t been a mirror for you since you both hit puberty, but the lines of your face and hers are the same: razor cheekbones and full mouths, the nose that every Fleet officer shares. Her eyes never darkened from gray; that was the first clue the crèche-keepers got that they’d spun an imperial clone instead of another Akhal. Today Tamar is bare-armed beautiful in the light coming up reflected off the waves, all muscle through the shoulder from how much she’s practiced with spear and neuroparalyzer net.

Tomorrow the Empress Herself kills her, or your Tamar kills the Empress and takes the Imperium for a prize. They’re not just otherselves like you and every other Akhal, they’re cloneflesh, they’re the same, there’s only ever allowed to be one of them. The law guarantees it.

Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.

Petros stares at the shuttle like you’ve been staring at it, goggle-eyed and hungry. “It’s not very big,” he says.

“That’s because this one’s just for this crèche, direct to the Empress’ flagship!” Tamar’s all foam-bubble excitement. You glow just hearing her.

“I know,” Petros says. “Only the best genesets, sent straight into the maw of the Fleet for our compulsory brainwashing and a celebratory gladiatorial death game! I am going to have so much fun I can hardly begin to describe it.”

“No one’s going to notice you, Petros, your bit’ll be easy,” you say, which you mean to be a comforting sort of comrades-in-arms gesture. From Petros’s expression it sounds to him more like you were enthusing about the benefits of sticking his head out an airlock.

Tamar ruffles his hair. Petros flinches, and so do you, your heart flopping in your chest like something from the deeps dragged out and drowning in air. Tamar can take anyone up to the Fleet with her on just her say-so. Even if he’s outside the law, no starstuff sparks ready to tear his flesh if he betrays the Empire, Petros Titresh gets his berth on the ship. That’s the part of your plan that’s all Tamar. She says to every horde-riddled adult: this Titresh is my servant; I want him, he comes with me.

On your good days, you believe that pile of rotten sharkmeat. This isn’t a good day. You’d rather you three were trying to smuggle him in the luggage.

“Two hours left,” Tamar says. “Last day on the beach. You boys ready?”

It’s your beach, yours and Tamar’s. Her balcony in the crèche looks down over it. It’s also the safest place for three kids to plan treason. The surf covers ambient sound pickup, and hardly anyone but you two’ve got the arm-strength to climb down the cliffs to the shore alone. When Petros comes along one of you brings a rope to help him, and he’s not a weakling. He’s just not an Akhal.

“You got the –” Petros starts to ask, his hand shaping a trigger and a stock in the air, and you interrupt him.

“Of course I do. Yours and mine.”

Petros gives you a short nod, stepping into the waves towards the shuttle. He gets the hems of his trousers soaked. “Everyone else I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing is either half-drunk on the prospect of basic training and eternal servitude, or hiding out in a skep hoping that not showing up for conscription day won’t make their nanites disassemble them,” he says contemplatively. “I guess I’m ready.”

Tamar splashes him. When he yelps, she says, “You’ll be fine.”

“I will not,” he says. “This is such a brilliant disaster of a plan.”

Next to Tamar, blazing like a comet, the moonlight shrouds him; he’s near invisible, his head bowed and his shoulders hunched up to his ears. He’s probably wishing he was down in the city, yelling at kids with visible asymmetries about changing the world. He’s a mess. You could hate him for it, but hating Petros makes you tired.

“Only a disaster if it doesn’t work,” you say, and you make yourself sound coaxing and gentle and like you believe it.

kings01“It’s going to work,” Tamar says. “If I win that duel – and you’re going to make sure I win that duel – I’m legally Empress and I can retroactively pardon the three of us. And then we can get started on making real changes! For everybody. We just have to get there. I need you.”

You are going to be sick to your stomach. Maybe you can blame it on never having been up in space before. The laser-housing for your rifle is digging a hole next to your ribs, under your gorgeous overjacket. You can’t forget it’s there and you aren’t sure how anyone else is likely to fail to notice how you’ve got most of a sniper rig in pieces all attached to you. Especially if you get sick all over yourself. Retroactive pardons. The fuck are you three doing.

“I know,” says Petros. “You can’t do it without me. Got to have an invisible kid to carry the bomb. We’ve got two hours, right? I’m taking a walk.” He trudges into the surf, heading east down the shoreline. Tamar watches him go.

You look around the beach that’s been a truer home than even your room in the crèche, and think: I am never going to see this place again. You don’t know if how empty your chest gets is because you want to be gone or because you’re saying goodbye. Then your Tamar is finally looking at you and you forget all about yourself.

She smiles like she smiles on the bow of a skiff right before she fires her speargun, high-tension and brighter than midday. She gets her feet wet coming over to you, and then she reaches out and fixes your collar. It’s the first time in six days she’s touched you, and she doesn’t even notice how you go shame-struck still under her fingertips.

“Elias,” she says. “We’re really doing this. I’m so nervous! It’s great.”

You nod. “We really are,” you say. She lets you go and dashes toward the pier and its boathouse.

“I’m going out one last time! You should come with me!” she calls over her shoulder.

The shadow of the pier swallows her whole and you go running after.


You meet your first shipside adults when the shuttle door gapes open like the belly of a gutted fish. The adults are tall and beautiful and they glitter, their lips and eyes full to bursting with nanite sparks. You can’t spot their geneset from just looking; it’s not one that gets spun in your crèche. They move like sharks, like they’ve forgot how to be still. When you line up to board, they take samples of your blood. Fingerprick test: one officer with a clipboard, one officer with a little needle-machine, making sure each kid is what they say they are.

Tamar gets a wide eye and a bit of snide subservience when she comes up imperial on the fingerprick, ushered to a seat right in the shuttlefront with the best view. She is simpered at while she goes. She takes it like the princess she’s always been, like she couldn’t care less for propriety. She introduces Petros while they check the dull hue of his blood. She introduces you: and this is Elias Akhal, we were crèchesibs together. The adults look you over, then, take your measure like they understand all of what you are. You twitch the panels of your overjacket into place and stare them down until they dismiss you as just one more sparkstruck kid caught in Tamar’s wake, and don’t you wish that didn’t sting.

You sit in the seat facing her and Petros, strapped in against acceleration. Your back’s to the view so even when you break gravity and the dizzy pressure of atmospheric escape shoves your lungs into your stomach, space stays a mystery. You watch it reflected in Tamar’s horde, starlight particles flowing restless in her cheeks, a hectic flush. About then everything goes topsy-turvy and you have to spend some time once again not spewing your guts onto your overjacket and ruining everything. Petros has got no such problems with weightlessness. His mouth gapes open at the view, and you’ve never seen him look so much like he might cry from seeing something good. Whatever else is wrong with him, refusing the horde and all his bullshit talk about geneset equality, turns out the kid is made for space. If you weren’t working on remembering how to breathe, you’d add that to the list of things Petros has taken away from you without ever knowing he took them.

Gravity reestablishes when the shuttle docks, but you don’t have time to adjust before the officers unstrap Tamar and take her away. You panic for the first time. The other kids are filing out of the shuttle and onto the flagship and all you do is scramble to your feet and say “Already?” like you are the most ill-starred fool in an awful romanceflick.

Tamar comes over to you all in a rush, gets close enough that you can see how wide her eyes have gotten. “Don’t worry yourself, Elias,” she says. “I’ll see you before sunrise. And you’ll – you’ll see me sooner, promise you’ll watch?”

There is nothing in your life that ever prepared you to say goodbye to Tamar Akhal. You haven’t got a single clue as to how. “I promise,” you say. “I’ll be right at the front—”

She leans in close. You think for a minute she’s going to kiss you, let you drink up how her mouth tastes exactly the same as yours. Tamar takes you by the shoulders instead, her fingers a bare inch from where the barrel of your rifle pushes against the nape of your neck. You tell yourself you don’t care and know you’re lying.

She presses her forehead to yours. “And take care of Petros for me.” She isn’t smiling; your princess is as serious as a cull. The other thing you haven’t got a clue about is how not to do what she asks of you.

“Just until you get back,” you say. Petros is staring at you like your geneset spelled for three heads.

“Heir,” says one of the officers, reproving, and she lets you go all at once, stalks over to them with her head high.

“Let’s go,” Tamar says, “I want to meet my predecessor already,” and then her escort’s got her and she’s gone.

“Fuck this,” says Petros. You agree. Then he does something you do not expect: he grabs your hand and holds on. You wouldn’t admit it if he asked, but you’re glad.


You wait an endless fifteen minutes before your escort arrives. He’s Akhal like you and not much your senior; looking at him is like looking at five years from now. Turns out your shoulders aren’t going to broaden much more but your face’ll settle into cheeks that could cut glass. Mid-twenties seems fantastic. You hope you live that long, but you’ve got your doubts.

Your escort doesn’t give his use-name, just hands you a records-tablet stuffed full of paperwork and grins your grin back at you, says welcome aboard, little brother. You manage not to stammer when you thank him, even if you’re shot right through with nerves. If anyone’ll notice your smuggled sniper’s kit it’ll be your otherself, trained up and true loyal.

You think: You should guess that you’re lying, you should guess that you’re committing treason right in front of you. You keep not guessing. Maybe you’re defective, and that’s why you’re capable of marching down a spaceship corridor behind a person who is supposed to be another part of you, and you can keep a secret from him. It’s horrible to think about. You’re proud of your geneset. You’ve always been. You don’t want to be so different from your otherselves that you’re opaque to them. (You also don’t want to be dead. You wish that mattered more to you right now. You’re so bad at this.)

Petros is dragged along in your wake, which is a better situation than a lot of the ones you three considered back on the beach. There’s no records-tablet and no fleet assignment for a kid who isn’t full up with nanites, and your otherself makes a note and promises Petros that he’ll have a whole fleet-compatible horde delivered for installation posthaste, considering Tamar’s gone and vouched for his usefulness.

Petros thanks him. You didn’t think he had the capacity to lie through his teeth. You’re learning all kinds of things now that you’ve come to space.

You and Petros are left in your assigned quarters. They’re tiny, an eighth the size of your rooms at the crèche, but not half bad otherwise: desk and little couch and a threadbare pretty carpet over the metal floor, single bed nestled under a huge viewport, and there’s your first real look at space. Space is a brighter black than night down planetside, a sharper distance studded with starlight that puts your horde to shame. It goes on and on and you are utterly dumbstruck, staring, records-tablet forgotten in your hands.

Over your shoulder, Petros says, “Come on, Elias, it’s just stars,” but you know better; you saw his face on the shuttle.

“Don’t you want them?” you say. You think it must be written into your geneset, the way you’re falling into the pinpoint lights.

“You are lovestruck for giant fusion reactors,” says Petros, wryly, “and I am twenty minutes from having a horde stuffed down my throat like oh accidentally missed my appointment and fucking the plan completely. I like the stars fine. Space is – great. Brilliant.”

You turn around. Petros is perched on the corner of the bed. He shrugs, crosses his arms over his ribs.

“They’re awfully gorgeous fusion reactors,” you say. You’re trying. You are, you’d swear to it in front of Tamar, even. “I’ve been waiting such a long time to see them.”

“I swear you Akhal are all space-mad.”

“Just because I love what my geneset might spell for me to love –”

“Doesn’t mean you don’t love it true, and doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Come on, Elias, how many times have we had this argument?”

“Enough times that I thought we were done,” you say.

“Maybe we were done while it was hypothetical.”

You want to turn around and look at the stars; you wish Petros would stop making you doubt your own desires. “I’m not giving up on the plan,” you say, “just because I’m happy to be here.”

“If you don’t do your half, I’m the one who is going to get spaced,” Petros says. He gets up and paces a short arc across your quarters, door to desk to bedside and back again. “You’re the safest of the three of us if you drop out. Nothing Tamar’s doing is even illegal. I set off an electropulse bomb and fry everyone’s nanite horde in the middle of the succession duel, and you don’t get out your smuggled rifle and snipe the Empress, I’m an anti-Fleet seditionist and you’re an innocent Akhal bystander. You get to moon over the stars for-fucking-ever-and-ever, just like you’re doing right now. You have a future in the Fleet. Your otherself just walked us here. So forgive me if I am suddenly having doubts about your commitment to the cause.”

kings02“And here I thought we were comrades,” you say. You feel as if your spine is liquid fire, spreading into your lungs and your tongue. “I guess I oughtn’t expect anyone who refused his nanites to be capable of comradeship.”

Petros’s cheeks go that dull ruddy shade that isn’t like anyone else’s fury, and he grabs your shoulders as if he’s about to shake you. You twist away and he snatches at the collar of your overjacket, so you swing at him. He ducks, yells something completely incomprehensible, and lunges for you. You shove your knee in his stomach, which doesn’t help at all, and the two of you go tumbling to the floor in a heap. The trigger-grip of your rifle slams into your left kidney and you make a high-pitched wheezing noise.

You shout at him. “Stop! If you hit me I might explode!”

This is true. It is also the funniest thing either of you have apparently ever heard. You find yourself with your forehead pushed into Petros’s shoulder, the both of you sharing an ugly bark of a laughing fit. You still feel miserable and furious and you still want nothing of the last ten minutes to have happened to you, but you can’t seem to stop the spasms of your gut and your lungs; you are practically gasping by the time you manage to raise your head.

“You’re kidding, right?” says Petros.

You get up on your knees and finish the job of shucking your overjacket. Petros exhales hard when he’s got a clear view of the pulse rifle, barrel curved to your back and disassembled trigger housing and scope taped low around your hips. You have to shove your shirt up to your collarbones to unstrap the electropulse bomb. The air of your quarters is clammy on your ribs.

“I used to snipe swordfish at four hundred meters, Petros,” you say. Your voice is a quaver and an embarrassment. “This isn’t even going to be hard.”

“You and Tamar have had your brains replaced with a kid’s infofiche history,” Petros says, but he’s helping you pull off the tape. The backs of his fingers brush your stomach and your nanites flock to the warm traces of touch, glittering afterimages rising on your skin. If he’d been full-up with a horde, he’d light up too. You’re selfish enough to wish to see it.

“She gave me this rifle, y’know?” you say to Petros, trying to cover that you’re blushing so hard your nanites cast a shadow. “When we were just kids. She bought it off a courier ship down for repairs, that winter I introduced you to her. Spent half her money and all of mine and said she thought I should have it. Started out being too big for me to carry, let alone shoot.”

Petros helps you slot the fuel cells into body of the rifle. “I always thought you were kind of an idiot,” he says companionably, as if he hadn’t tried to punch you five minutes back, as if he wasn’t putting together your sniper’s rig, “and your politics have got the complexity of a two-year-old who’s still dubious about sharing.”

“And yet here we are,” you say. You hand him the electropulse bomb. He turns it over and over in his hands, his unlit thumb brushing over the pressure pad of the trigger.

“It’s a public succession duel,” he says. “When did you two decide that you’d settle for nothing but the purest high-grade treason?”

Quite suddenly you don’t want to explain. You’re shy of it; you think he’ll laugh at you, and somehow that’d be worse than when he wanted to punch you for being yourself.

“Wasn’t Tamar’s idea at all, to begin with,” you say.

“No? Come on, Elias, you’re gagging for Fleet Command, have been since you were knee-high. Can’t have been you.”

You shrug; you kneel so as to fasten the rifle back under your overjacket, in three parts this time. Four seconds to assemble it the rest of the way. You’ve practiced, alone in the sand, watching the horizonline instead of your hands, faster and faster.

“When I brought it up,” you explain, “she said I didn’t owe her that much, that she could take care of herself. I even took her out on the quay and shot seagulls off the rocks so she’d know what kind of aim I’ve got. But she told me she wanted a fair fight.”

Petros laughs, that same bitter barking. “Nothing fair about fighting the Empress in a duel to the death when you’ve not even gone through basic training yet.”

“Maybe I should have said that.”

“What did you say?”

You’d shoved the butt of your rifle into the sand and leaned on it, looking out over the sea that’d belonged to you and Tamar both. The wind had blown your hair twining with hers and you remember you’d felt like a photograph. You’d said to her, I’m not yours, I’m not flesh of your flesh, but like fuck I’m going to watch you die and then bow my knee to your murderer. She’d looked at you like you were breaking her heart.

What you say to Petros Titresh is: “I told her that I read my histories. There’s never been an empress who won the throne fair. And then she said I sounded like you.”

He slides the bomb into his pocket. He gets to his feet. “I should go before they find me here and dump me full of nanites,” he says. “The explosion’ll be on my count. Two hundred seconds from the opening of the duel.”

You nod.

He sticks out his hand. Gingerly, you take it, and he yanks you to your feet. “Elias,” he says. “Don’t miss.”


The arena is sand, starlit, a huge jewel set in the belly of the flagship. Every coliseum-style seat is full but yours, rows and rows all the way up to the edges of the shieldglass dome that covers the whole thing. There’s at least ten thousand Fleet soldiers here, more sets of faces than you’ve ever seen in one place. You wonder if anyone’s left to drive the starship.

There are tunnels underneath the arena, and somewhere in one is Petros Titresh, alone and invisible and carrying a bomb. No horde in him: You and he left your quarters before any adult could show up with a nanite wafer to dissolve on his tongue. Technically you suppose you’re AWOL right now, but if anyone asks, you wanted to see the succession duel, and who wouldn’t. Petros isn’t AWOL so much as he’s a ghost. He peeled off from you twenty steps down the hall, and now you suppose you have to trust one another. You suppose also that you do.

The starfield above the arena goes on forever. You can’t look at it for dizziness, can’t think about it else your directions slide all out of phase. Gravity’s a spinning fiction and you know it. You wish you could’ve shot at something less important a couple hundred times to make sure you’ve got your trajectories calculated right. There’s only so much the scope of your rifle will do for you. More than half of sniping is the sniper’s eye and the sniper’s will.

Those, and hands that don’t shake.

The three parts of your rifle are tucked up under your arms with your overjacket back on to hide them. Petros pronounced you the very picture of someone with better genes than sense before he left you alone, so you figure you can smile at the other new Akhal innocuous enough. There was a time when you’d’ve been more than eager to chat them all up, shove and maneuver until you sorted out whose geneset had spun truest. Now you sit as tall and still as you can, playing like none of them are worthy to talk with you. They’re crowded into the seats beside yours, a jagged little clutch of mirrors, bright black eyes in your face eight times over. You all glow the same. None of them are dressed as pretty as you.

This is the quietest you’ve been in your entire life.

When the whole arena goes dark, there is nothing but the flicker of ten thousand nanite hordes, echoing the sudden press of the stars. You are going die of loving them, you think, they are lodging in your chest like your horde was actually made of light.

In that glimmering dim, the Empress rises from the center of the sand. She is flame-bright, some of those stars settling like a thousand tiny crowns in her hair. She’s got the Akhal face and Tamar’s gray eyes and there isn’t a spare inch of flesh on her; only sternness, only regal command, effortless in a way that makes you want nothing but to get on your knees. It’s all a show, you tell yourself, it’s light and smoke and mirrors. In her hands she carries neuroparalyzer net and a spear that doesn’t look like a prop of office; its point is a savage glint.

Your Empress lifts the spear to the starlight. The roar of the crowd resonates in your bones.

“Welcome,” she says, her voice amplified and enveloping the whole arena. “Newest members of our Imperial Fleet. On the occasion of this night I offer you my personal congratulations. You are the purest, the brightest, the best genesets spun of your cohort. And tonight – tonight, the stars are yours.”

Tonight the stars are yours. It isn’t that you weren’t afraid before. It’s that now you’re afraid you’ll break your own heart when you shoot your gun. You don’t much want Petros to be right about you, star-struck, blind and betraying; you want there to be a third option where you get to keep how you feel right now and no one has to die.

Your Empress dips her spear. “In recognition of the achievement of your adulthood, the light that you carry within you will now be joined to the light which burns in me, so that we may all be subject to the same law.”

Your mouth dries and you flush hot. You are already burning, your veins humming as each tiny machine hears its new instruction. The law of the nanites is the Fleet’s law; if you act against the interests of the Fleet you will be disassembled, devoured for carbon and water and reused in some more appropriate capacity. There is only one free man on this ship now and it isn’t you: it is Petros Titresh, down in the dark under the arena with his nanite-disabling bomb.

Then your Tamar walks out onto the sands and even the nanites stop mattering to you. Next to the Empress’s glory she isn’t small but she is stark, all in black, none of your girl’s usual frippery, no gauze and gold wrapped around her narrow waist. She carries spear and net like they’re part of her arm. Somehow she is smiling. You hate yourself for thinking even for one minute that you’d regret defending her.

“Predecessor!” she shouts. Whatever amplification the Empress is using picks her up too, makes her sound like a struck bell, right at your side where she belongs. “I greet you and I challenge you, predecessor, for command and for the Fleet!”

You imagine, in the dark, Petros starting his count, down from two hundred. You start yours.

“Do you?” says the Empress. She sounds infinitely gentle, kind and a little sad, like she’s seen a dozen challenges and, regretting every one, spilled them red onto the sand. “On what grounds do you make claim to our stars, little sister?”

It’s a script. A show. One hundred forty-eight.

“I am flesh of your flesh,” says Tamar. “Your blood is mine! Your life is mine! Your stars are mine!” Then she squares her shoulders and jerks her chin up. You know that set of her, all stubborn and annoyed. “Also by the right of the law, predecessor, I claim you incompetent to rule – you misuse us.”

The Empress pauses. You go cold, staring at the shine of her nanites and the brighter shine of her spear, knowing the script is trashed. You keep counting – one hundred thirty, one hundred twenty-nine – all the while wondering if you’ll even have time to take your shot. Then the Empress laughs. When she laughs she sounds exactly the same as Tamar.

“Child,” she says. “So will you.” She dips her spear in some kind of salute.

Tamar doesn’t wait. She’s flying through the air, all of her behind the force of her spearthrust, aimed perfect at the Empress’s throat. Your breath freezes in your lungs.

The Empress moves, faster than you can see, a blurred glow that snatches Tamar’s spear from the air and wrenches her brutally sideways, tosses her like a cracked whip through the air. She lands on the sand – you wait for the sickening thump of splintered bone (eighty-two seconds) – but Tamar rolls, gets to her feet. She still has her net. You’re panting. You suck at the air like your body thinks you’re breathing vacuum, every cell straining sympathy.

Sixty-five. They circle each other, slow. Tamar’s spear is a dark line she’s landed too far away from, and she heads counterclockwise toward it. The Empress throws her net, its weighted edges spinning, the filaments crackling with paralyzing electricity. It sends Tamar ducking backward, dancing away from her weapon. Your girl is fast. Faster than you, faster than anyone you know, but the Empress isn’t even breathing hard yet. Tamar tosses her head back, bares her perfect teeth –

Thirty. You haven’t got time for watching this.

You drop to your knees. You’re up front and all the other Akhal kids are all on their feet, screaming with the crowd, ignoring everything but the fight below. Four seconds to snap the rifle together – you lose one in fumbling the stock free of your overjacket, twenty-three, twenty-two, the barrel balances perfect on your shoulder. The scope settles over your eye. Your fingers flip each laser cell alight, curl around the trigger easy and gentle.


Tamar feints for her spear, makes a leap toward where it’s lying and when the Empress starts forward to bat Tamar away, Tamar changes direction, closes in, just her net in her hands. It is the bravest thing you have ever seen Tamar do, and Tamar is the bravest of all the kids you know.

Fourteen. In the entire universe there is only you, and your target, and Tamar. Tamar’s arm, the bunched curve of her spine, how they block where you need your shot to hit. Your fingertip feels raw against the triggerpull, every millimeter of your skin telling you how much pressure, how much tension you need to apply.

The first time you shot this rifle it knocked you over and Tamar had to pull you out of the dune where you’d landed on your ass.

The second time you shot it, braced proper like you’d looked up in your military manuals, you’d blown a hole in the side of a cliff deep enough for a grown man to hide in.

The Empress closes her fist in Tamar’s hair and yanks her head back. You think of the veins in her throat, the curve of her collarbones. You think that hit or miss, you can’t watch her die and never could. You wonder when your nanites will notice that you’re brimful with treason. Is it now, as you sight through the scope? Two. Is it now, as you breathe out, as your finger squeezes, one, as you wonder if Petros has the count right, now, the sound of the gun louder than the crowd –

The back of your hand is a blaze of white; you are lit up like a thousand stars, electrical arcs between your fingertips. You feel your muscles lock; you shake, you are empty of everything but desire and you know you’ll die of it, know it is the fuel that renders you up for consumption, and in knowing, understand you haven’t missed. Tamar is empty-handed on her feet and yet the Empress has no chest. It is all blown clean. Nevertheless the two of them have the same expression: a surprised triumph fading to serenity. The Empress crumples, a slow fall. The white glow of your nanites crawls up the inside of your eyelids. You wait for the oblivion of seizure.

The world goes dark and shudders. You think it is dark only for you, that you are gone, devoured. You lie on your side with your cheek pressed into the barrel of your rifle. You are alone. There are no lights under anyone’s skin, not yours and not your otherselves, the whole group of you stunned silent.

You think, marveling: Petros. The bomb. Every nanite disabled at once. You are not going to die after all.

To turn your head is agonizing, but when you do, the vaulted starfield roof still gleams. Your stuttering heart keeps beating.

You leave your eyes open. You wait.

 march-endofArkady MartineArkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a Byzantine historian. In both roles she writes about border politics, rhetorical propaganda, and liminal spaces. She was a student at Viable Paradise XVII. Arkady grew up in New York City and currently lives in Uppsala, Sweden. Find her online at or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

Other Tales To Put in Your Eyes:

Shimmer-21-ThumbnailAnna Saves Them All, Seth Dickinson  Blackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified. Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.” 

Shimmer-22-ThumbnailCaretaker, Carlie St. George A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

Shimmer-23-ThumbnailOf Blood and Brine
, Megan O’Keefe Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side.

Shimmer #31

800pxmay16_Shimmer Cover

Our five May stories contain unique voices that will carry readers to beautiful and tragic places, be it to distant star empires, robot-infested cities, the cracked world in the wake of an earthquake, or the inner chambers of the human heart.

All the Colors You Thought Were Kings, by Arkady Martine
Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’ll take you away. She’s down by the water, her belly kissing the sand and her skinny landing-legs stuck out like a crab. You and Tamar watched her land, stayed up half the night like babies staring at their first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of Tamar’s balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two have been full up with starstuff for as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by yourselves. Now you’re almost home.

Suicide Bots, by Bentley A. Reese 
The car won’t go faster. Why won’t it go faster? It needs to go faster. We’re laughing. I grind my foot against the gas pedal. I stand half off my seat and lay into it. I scream at the gas. The gas is no good. The gas needs to go faster.  I hear plastic snap and the pedal breaks under my foot—we go a wild two-thirty. We fly across the road. The Mustang’s engine punches out of the hood. A steaming, choking monster, it wants us to want it. I wanna ride it. I want to ride the engine screaming and burning into stupid oblivion. I’ll rut the world so it remembers I existed. So I remember that I existed.

Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson
They are running the perimeter again, slipping in and out of cover, sun and shadow. Pilar knows the route by rote: crouch here, dash there, slow then quick. While they run, she ticks up and down the list of emergency overrides, because it has become a ritual to her over the course of the long nightmare, a rosary under her chafed-skinless fingertips.

An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater
It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls. They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals.

.subroutine:all///end, by Alex Acks (available June 28)
The first despairing sob of Helen’s cracked voice registers, matches waveforms, and executes number 88 out of my 2,102 hanging subroutines. 

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